Historic downtown Malacca is filled with dozens of museums. Maybe it’s due to the fact that there are so many, but most of them seem to leave something to be desired. A lot of them are pretty small, which means the interesting parts (to me) were even smaller. Some of them are poorly laid out and hard to follow. It also seems like they all use creepy mannequins in one form or another. Or maybe they just suffer in comparison to the House of Museums. Despite the generic name and unassuming storefront, this private museum is the best Malacca has to offer.
It all starts with the museum’s curator and sole worker on the day we visited, Mr. Tih. This man has an absolute passion for his work and he’s not afraid to share it. In the House of Museums, Mr. Tih has created an authentic portal to decades gone by. Set in an old two story house, there are 15 different themed areas, including things like a beauty salon, a traditional Chinese medicine shop, and a living quarters (shown above). Within each section, everything that can be viewed is authentic to the era.
It’s truly like stepping back in time. Unlike a regular museum where the building and displays are often modern, everything in the House of Museums is true to the time period. The furniture, art, display cases, advertisements, and all of the subject matter are time- and era-sensitive. It’s quite fascinating seeing so many products that are approaching a century old grouped together in a coherent theme. There were many things that I recognized, but the majority were new to me. That’s partly because it’s before my time and partly because I’m halfway around the world.
It was not just the viewing of relics from the ‘40s and ‘50s that made the museum enjoyable. Mr. Tih himself is the heart and soul of the place. A “normal” visit would take about a half hour or so at a leisurely pace. The two floors of the former residence are not that big. Instead we spent nearly two hours there, engaging in the most entertaining and informative discussion that I’ve had in a long time. Our free-ranging talks were split into a few different conversations as he had to leave us to attend to some other museum visitors periodically. In 15-20 minute spurts, we talked about his passion for history, Bruce Lee, Buddhism, his reverence for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, the state of the world, what’s wrong with kids these days, and so much more.
These conversations started even before we paid our paltry $2.50 entrance fee. He asked if we had time for him to explain a bit about the museum and upon hearing our affirmative reply, away he went. After chatting for a while, mostly about his passion for his work, he finally took our money and directed us upstairs to start on the second floor. He then instructed us to wait for him when we came down the steps at the back of the house which mark the halfway point of the museum.
Mr. Tih is a self-described student of history, and that includes the storied history of his hometown. He asked us to wait at the back of the museum in order to show us what he claimed was the most important part. When we got there, he confirmed we were ready, paused for dramatic effect, and then threw open the sliding backdoor to reveal the Malacca River. He then proceeded to tell us why the river was the most important part of the museum because without the river, Malacca wouldn’t exist. Without the river, his life’s work would not be here. Without the river, life as he knew it would be very different. As you can probably guess from this interaction, he’s a little bit of a ham. But he has a lot of knowledge to share in his own delightful way.
He continued to gush about the river and the city as he showed us pictures of it’s history. We were able to see what the banks looked like before they were given concrete sides and how small trading ships docked in the town. Mr. Tih is very proud of his hometown and feels the river is its lifeblood. I couldn’t help but agree with him on that point. The river is definitely one of the best parts of Malacca.
I’m sure I would’ve appreciated the House of Museums without any staff interaction at all. The displays are quite unique and filled with fascinating historical products. But being able to engage in an entertaining conversation with a passionate man like Mr. Tih really made it unforgettable. He loves to interact with his visitors and his communication style is very entertaining. Our visit could not have been more enjoyable and I pity the fool who misses it on a visit to Malacca.